Lessons from the Novak Djokovic vs Australian government fight

No party came out of the recent Australian Open Novak Djokovic saga with their reputations unscathed – not the Federal Government, Victorian government, Tennis Australia, or Novak Djokovic. Except maybe Channel 7 anchors Rebecca Madden and Mike Amore, who the whole of Australia appear to firmly agree with.

What went wrong? 

What might have first appeared to the Federal Government as an opportunity to change the media conversation and appear in control amid the chaos of the handling of Omicron, soon added to the perception of chaos and poor communication between federal and state government and government departments. By making a public display of Djokovic, they have opened themselves up to scrutiny and trial by media and social media on a global scale. 

The drama opened up a huge can of worms for the government, with he said/ he said drama equivalent to a slow-moving daytime soap. Without a clear, consistent message and explanation, the media and public were left to fill the silence with their own commentary, assumptions and uninformed opinions. There was grandstanding, international criticism, and even fresh condemnation around how Australia treats refugees. 

How should the government have handled things? 

Before taking a bold position, consideration should always be given to precedent, exceptions, and double standards in past decisions. For example, have other unvaccinated travellers been allowed into Australia in recent times? Have others struggled to have quick action taken regarding immigration decisions? If the answer is yes, then it’s time to get off your soapbox and provide much more than a short tweet and press conference sound bite. People like to be talked to as if they are intelligent – a short, vague response is nowhere near enough. 

A more considered response would have pointed to the rules while appealing to our shared humanity and empathy. For example: ‘while we know this must be deeply disappointing for Djokovic, Australians have been doing the right thing and our health professionals are already carrying a big load.’ 

The response should have also clearly stated the health reasons behind the decision, such as the fact that you can still catch and share COVID-19 after having it yourself. It should have also reminded the public that other countries hold the same position (for example, the U.S. not allowing unvaccinated people in). Finally, it should have touched on what needs to happen for the decision to change. 

Where do we go from here?

This story has attracted so much attention with too many unanswered questions for the huge appetite the public has for this saga. The situation reminds me of how F1 handled the 2020 Melbourne Grand Prix, with confusion, silence, and extremely last-minute decision-making being the main takeaways. That sort of reputational damage won’t disappear overnight – for either Djokovic or the Australian government.

This article was written by Phoebe Netto, founder and MD of Pure Public Relations 

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